Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from a much longer photojournalistic essay complete with animated gifs and some 20 pages of text. Please, start with the text below and then scroll down to the bottom for further links.
What sort of an army does such an ambivalent country have? As far as most of the world is concerned, Taiwan doesn't even exist. Supporters of the Kuomintang party, which had lost to the Communists during the Chinese Civil War, escaped to the island in 1949.
Only one in ten of the world’s countries have recognized Taiwan's independence and not a single country in Europe, North America or Asia has established diplomatic relations with it. The Taiwan question is a complex one, and the political status of the island depends on who you ask.
Every year 100 Taiwanese youngsters test themselves to the limits in order to become frogmen . For them, being a marine commando means fame and money. For the Taiwanese military, they are good PR. We joined the 21 recruits for the last three days of their training.
The Taiwanese army is known for its exceptionally long and hard compulsory national service. The youngsters are now sweating it out on Day 68. This is the toughest and most important week of their training and the recruits have to stick it out for another three days.
...the recruits continue their exercises as a handful of instructors dressed in red shorts and sunglasses shout out orders. In their shorts, they look more like lifeguards than commandos. The recruits switch over to doing press-ups, all except one, one of the two girls in the group, who has to go on doing crunches. Saliva is running down her front and a male recruit beside her is crying.
"If the recruits perform their exercises half-heartedly, they are obliged to repeat them until they do them properly," explains Liu Jay-Jhong, who is an alumnus of the Military Academy as well as being in charge of PR for the Marines.
...Things have quietened down. The recruits have spread out their bedrolls side-by-side below the concrete structure and have fallen asleep as soon as their heads touched the pillows. No wonder. We’ve been told that in the last week of training, they’re only allowed an hour of sleep a day, fifteen minutes at a time.
The atmosphere has changed in seconds from violence to gentleness. No shouting, no commands, just the sound of snoring and a magpie crowing in the bushes. The hands of some of the recruits are touching. Maybe the body unknowingly seeks out the touch of another, seeking safety under severe stress.
Suddenly, the peace and quiet is over, as quickly as it began. The instructors gather round the sleepers like crows round carrion and take out their whistles. One, two, three and a piercing noise breaks the silence.
“Yi, er, san, si. Yi, er, san, si!”
It’s ten o’clock in the morning and the recruits are counting up to four in the midst of a ruined building. Places have changed, but they are still doing their familiar exercises, what else?
It’s become clear that repeating these movements ad infinitum isn’t just a workout. If they repeat the exercises often enough, the recruits learn to relinquish their own power of decision and hand it over to the authorities. There also seems to be an element of meditation in the repetition. All unnecessary ideas are let go – partly through pain.
The Taiwanese Defence Forces have been criticised for putting recruits and soldiers at risk through unnecessarily severe discipline, for good reason. For example, frogman training is so merciless and intensive that the recruits frequently pass out, admits Liu Jay-Jhong.
There have been cases of severe injury, even death. A few years ago, according to Liu, one of the recruits died at the end of an orienteering exercise. He fell and hit his head. Another injured his neck extremely badly.
“After these accidents, we improved safety measures and made the orienteering a little easier. Now it’s done in groups rather than individually,” Liu tells us.
There are paramedics, nurses and an ambulance standing by all the time. The recruits’ body temperature is checked frequently, and cuts, bruises and blisters are patched up. The NCOs have to keep an eye on the recruits in their own units and, if necessary, report to the instructors.
Some of the recruits just can’t take it physically, but more often it’s about insufficient motivation or mental stamina. Serious mental problems have mostly been avoided, says Liu, but he doesn’t want to give any details.
“Sometimes, a recruit no longer understands commands, but just follows the others monotonously. When somebody asks them something, they’re no longer able to reply,” he continues.
It´s a curious equation indeed: Good soldiers relinquish their power of decision. Nevertheless, they can’t lose control completely, however hard they’re tested.
...The company has marched on to the wetlands and it’s time for the urban combat exercise to begin. During the exercise, they have to leap into pools of mud.
The recruits have to run into the mud pool and roll around. I can scarcely make out their eyes from the sea of mud. Then the instructor throws a stick in the pool and orders one of the recruits to bring it back in his teeth like a dog. The remainder are ordered to throw clumps of mud at low-flying birds.
While the officers are laughing, Liu Jay-Jhong explains to us that it used to be much worse. A few years ago, the recruits still had to jump into an actual cesspool, which resulted in upset stomaches and worse.
A stony road, known as the ‘Road to Heaven’, has been laid on the grassed area in front of the main building, which is supposed to symbolise landing on the enemy’s territory. Today is an important day. In an hour’s time, the recruits will have to pass the final test and make their way up the Road to Heaven. The sun rises to fill the morning sky and the families and friends of the recruits have begun to gather on the parade ground. Two busloads of schoolchildren turn up, as well.
The atmosphere is curiously carnival-like. Schoolchildren wander around booths where soldiers are demonstrating weapons. Three boys immediately begin to take aim at each other with them. People are posing with the defence forces’ mascot, which is mingling around the parade ground, while others sit waiting expectantly under the white canvas awnings. Inside in the hall, a video of the frogmen, backed by action-movie music, is running non-stop.
The time has come. The recruits march up to the beginning of the stony road where they first swear an oath. "I shall accept all commands and I shall withstand everything that comes."
—Touko Hujanen (photographer), Ann-Mari Huhtanen (writer), Nicholas Mayow (translator)
Editor's Note: This story is just one of eleven featured in the Finnish photojournalistic magazine Crisis? . 11 photographers and 11 writers look at 11 crises and try to figure out how we should talk about them. Lots of amazing stories — definitely worth exploring !